Donovan back to prove a point
When Landon Donovan finishes up winter training in the Canary Islands with his new club, Bayer Leverkusen, he will embark on the 2005 portion of the 2004-2005 Bundeliga schedule. At his first match against Hannover 96 on January 23, there'll be a familiar face across the field. Steve Cherundolo, Donovan's teammate on the U.S. National Team, is one of Hannover's captains and starts at right back.
Cherundolo admitted there wasn't too much made in Germany over last November's announcement of Donovan's return to the Bundesliga. However he's confident that his longtime teammate will make an impact with Leverkusen.
"Yeah, I think he'll be a big help for them," he said. "I think he'll help with his athletic ability because he's fast and has great endurance. He'll also help them because of his great composure in front of the goal. That's something that every team in Germany is looking for, really. Everyone needs finishers, and he can definitely put the ball away."
Tony Sanneh, who spent six seasons in the Bundesliga playing for Hertha Berlin and FC Nurnberg before signing with the Columbus Crew last summer, believes that Donovan will be a success, as well.
"I think he makes them a stronger team," said the 33-year-old defender. "He adds speed and creativity."
What's funny is that the Bundesliga isn't normally noted for speed and creativity. At first glance, Donovan's skill set makes him a perfect fit for a club in La Liga or perhaps in Holland. But anyone who would pigeon-hole the 22-year-old American star hasn't been watching him closely over the past several years. His game has become more well-rounded, allowing him to play in any league in the world.
It helps that he's going to a side that is as technical as any team in the league. Furthermore, Leverkusen as Cherundolo said, is having an "average year," which makes the likelihood of them using Donovan right away as an attacking midfielder more likely. Plus, they have been scouting him closely ever since he left the club in 2001 to play for the San Jose Earthquakes. They've watched him transform himself from the speedy goal-scorer they signed as a 16-year-old into a dynamic player who can run the show from the middle of the park, and is as dangerous when passing the ball as he is when knifing through defenders on the attack.
"They know him and respect him," said Sanneh. "They know he is a talent, but wonder why he left."
The depressed and homesick kid they watched leave in the spring of 2001 is not the same person they are getting to know again now. Since he left Leverkusen the first time, Donovan has starred in a World Cup, won two domestic championships, won several U.S. Player of the Year awards and has even been wearing the captain's armband for the National Team in Claudio Reyna's absence.
In other words, he's ready.
"When it comes to soccer players in the United States," said San Jose Earthquakes head coach Dominic Kinnear, "he is at the top of the list, almost without argument or without question."
Donovan, who will wear number 22 for Leverkusen, joins a roster that contains several foreign players such as Polish international Radoslaw Kaluzny and Brazilian defender Roque Junior. Although they have a different look from the standard Bundesliga side, Cherundolo said that it's a difficult league to adjust to at the beginning.
"The Bundesliga can be brutal," said Cherundolo, who has scored three goals for Hannover 96 this year and is having one of his best seasons to date. "It's really important to be on the same page as your teammates, tactically. If you're not at a club that's going to go out and buy every star and can afford to buy success, it's even more important. Players here are very disciplined and stick by their team's tactics. It's a league of patience.
"You can't go out there looking to impress the other team with skills or try and run up and down the field and make it an emotional game. If you do, you'll get burned. Germans are very patient and will wait long enough until they can capitalize on your mistake. It's ninety minutes of pure concentration. That's the hardest thing about the Bundesliga. You can play very well for eighty-nine minutes and be punished for that one bad minute of play.
"That's the game of soccer, but it happens more here than anywhere else."
Cherundolo gave Donovan high praise, saying that the most comparable player currently in the Bundesliga is Schalke's mercurial playmaker Cassio Lincoln.
"They are both strong in the open field, especially on a counterattack," he said. "Both Lincoln and Donovan are good at making the right pass or taking it himself since they both have a very dangerous shot."
As was the case the first time Donovan traveled to Germany, the playing aspect of his life might be the easiest to deal with. Even though he joked that Leverkusen officials assured him that "it is not prison I'm going back to," expectations were different back in 1999 and 2000. Donovan wasn't expected to help the first team back then. In essence, he was just another bright prospect with potential signed by the team. This time around, he is a player that every German fan remembers from the 2002 World Cup when he nearly beat Oliver Kahn with a quick shot in the quarterfinals, and was one of the main catalysts behind the U.S. side's wild success.
To say that the German media will not treat Donovan the way he was treated in the U.S. is an understatement. The team needs to climb the table and with a home-and-away Champions League encounter against Liverpool that starts on February 22 in Anfield, Donovan's honeymoon period may be shorter than most. He'll be expected to do well from the outset or else he'll hear about it.
"You need to have thick skin here," bemoaned Cherundolo. "The media really tries to get after you here. They try and beat you down. It can be very negative. You need to keep playing hard and get on with it even after a few losses. You need to be able to take criticism."
Donovan saw Clint Mathis get beaten up by the German writers, not to mention his own fans, when his play wasn't up to form last spring with Hannover 96. And Sanneh didn't have a great experience dealing with the media while he was in Germany either. However, that's hardly anything that Sanneh would tell Donovan. It's something Donovan will have to experience on his own. After being in the limelight so often for the past five years of his life, it's likely that he'll be able to adjust.
"I would tell him to be honest and work hard," said Sanneh. "He has to be confident in his abilities, and know he can be a star."
Marc Connolly covers soccer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.